Obama should give Cameron an economics lesson

Only one of the two leaders is stimulating the global recovery.

No meeting between Barack Obama and David Cameron is now complete without a joint article lauding the "special" (or, in this case, the "essential") relationship and recalling the two countries' past triumphs. The Washington Post is the venue for today's op-ed and the first sentence hasn't even elapsed before the obligatory reference to Churchill.

Rather than the sections on Afghanistan, Iran and Syria (where there is consensus between the two men), the most intriguing passage is on the economy (where there is not). Obama and Cameron write:

As leading world economies, we are coordinating closely with our G-8 and G-20 partners to put people back to work, sustain the global recovery, stand with our European friends as they resolve their debt crisis and curb the reckless financial practices that have cost our taxpayers dearly. We're committed to expanding the trade and investment that support millions of jobs in our two countries.

That's sufficiently bland to avoid any controversy. But it disguises the fact that while one country (the US) is stimulating "the global recovery", another (the UK) is acting as a drag anchor on it. George Osborne was once fond of boasting that the UK had grown faster than the US, "despite fiscal stimulus in the former and fiscal consolidation in the latter, showing that the problem is not too much fiscal responsibility."

But that's not a claim he can make now. The final figures for 2011 showed that the US grew by 1.7 per cent, while the UK grew by just 0.8 per cent (see graph) - one of the worst growth rates in the EU. On employment, the picture is a similar one. While Obama is putting people back to work, Cameron is putting them on the dole. US unemployment is now at its lowest level since the recession, while UK unemployment is at its highest level since 1996.

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What explains the contrasting data? Well, while Obama chose to stimulate growth, Cameron chose to strangle it. Obama introduced an extended payroll tax cut, Cameron raised VAT to a record high of 20 per cent. As the ippr's Eric Beinhocker notes in today's Times (£), the US President's tax cut injected $92 billion a year of stimulus into the US economy, with the result that consumer spending increased by 2.2 per cent last year while it shrank by 0.8 per cent in Britain.

When Obama visited Britain last year he refused, to the despair of the Tories, to endorse Cameron's deficit reduction plan. Noting that the pair come from "different political traditions", he added that the "sequencing and pace" of fiscal contraction would be different in each country.

If and when the subject of the economy arises during Cameron's visit, it will be worth watching the two leaders' language. Having been vindicted by the data, Obama has every reason to offer some free economics tuition.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.